The decline in U.S. life expectancy is unlike anything we've seen in a century


For a nation that spends more on healthcare per citizen than almost any other, America isn’t exactly reaping the rewards. Life expectancy has been steadily climbing for decades now, but in the last few years it’s taken a troubling turn in the other direction.

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control shows that a small decrease in life expectancy, from 78.7 to 78.6 years, is part of a continuing trend. Even as we make progress treating cancer, heart disease, and stroke—three of the biggest killers—we’re losing ground on other fronts and have been since 2014. That makes this continuous decline unlike anything we've seen since World War I and the Spanish influenza, which both happened between 1915 and 1918.

In its report, the CDC highlighted three things that have contributed to American's shrinking life expectancy in recent years: drug overdoses, chronic liver disease, and suicide. “Increased death rates for unintentional drug overdoses in particular—a subset of unintentional injuries—contributed to the negative change in life expectancy observed in recent years," the report reads.

But the changes aren’t affecting everyone equally. Take a look at these charts:

Health and life expectancy varies geographically. Worldwide variation is enormous, but even within the United States you can expect to live 6.6 years longer if you live in Hawaii, the top-ranked state, than in Mississippi, which comes in last. With its 81.3 year life expectancy, Hawaii looks more like the Netherlands than the United States. Mississippi's 74.7 year projection looks more like Kuwait.

Tackling the various problems that contribute to the recent upticks in suicide, liver disease, and drug overdoses won’t be easy. They’re multifaceted issues—often complicated by economics—that we’ve only just begun to parse. But if we want Americans to lead long and healthy lives, it looks like we’re going to have to change what we’re doing. If these charts tell us anything, it's that our current methods aren’t working.